Top Border Patrol Official Says It Is U.S. Policy to Separate HIV-positive Parents From Their Children

A top Border Patrol official told Congress members on Thursday that it is U.S. policy to separate migrant parents who are HIV-positive from their children at the border.

Brian Hastings, who serves as chief of law enforcement at the Border Patrol, was testifying at a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing when Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland questioned him on Border Patrol's practice of separating parents with communicable diseases from their children.

"If a mother or father has HIV-positive status is that alone enough to justify separation from their child?" Raskin asked.

"It is," Hastings responded. "It's a communicable disease under the guidance."

Noting that lawmakers had received reports of HIV-positive parents being separated from their children "on that basis," Raskin said: "Is that what we mean by communicable disease?"

HIV, he stressed, is "not communicable through ordinary contact."

Indeed, as the U.S. government's own website on HIV states, "you can only get HIV by coming into direct contact with certain body fluids from a person with HIV who has a detectable viral load." Those fluids include blood, semen, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids and breast milk.

"For transmission to occur, the HIV in these fluids must get into the bloodstream of an HIV-negative person through a mucous membrane," found in the "rectum, vagina, mouth, or tip of the penis," or through open cuts and sores or by direct injection, the website notes.

"People with HIV who take HIV medicine daily as prescribed and get and keep an undetectable viral load have effectively no risk of sexually transmitting HIV to their HIV-negative partners," it adds.

Despite that, Hastings defended the policy, asserting: "That's the guidance that we follow."

Asked where that directive came from, the top Border Patrol official said: "I'm not sure if that came from legal counsel. I believe that's defined as a communicable disease."

After Raskin asked whether Hastings had a list of all the communicable diseases that might warrant family separation under Border Patrol's guidelines, Hastings said he did not have such a list with him.

"I mean, the flu is communicable," Raskin pushed. "Would we separate parents from kids if a mom or dad had the flu?"

Hastings said the Border Patrol would not.

In a testimony provided to the House Judiciary Committee by Hastings and Randy Howe, the executive director for operations at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Field Operations, the two officials specifically warned of "communicable diseases" migrants could potentially carry.

"Many migrants travel north from countries where poverty and disease are rampant, and their health can be aggravated by the physical toll of the journey," they said.

"They may have never seen a doctor, received immunizations, or lived in sanitary conditions," they continued. Meanwhile, "close quarters on trains and buses that smugglers procure for moving them through Mexico can hasten the spread of communicable diseases," they said.

"All of these factors leave migrants vulnerable to serious medical complications. In many cases, they arrive at our southern border already exhibiting symptoms of a health issue," the two officials asserted.

Despite their warnings and repeated statements from President Donald Trump and other members of the Trump administration accusing migrants of bringing "disease" to the United States, the World Health Organization has sought to dispel the argument that migrants and refugees bring diseases to the countries they arrive in.

In a recent report, based on a review of more than 13,000 documents, the WHO found that "there are indications that there is a very low risk of transmitting communicable diseases from the refugee and migrant population to the host population."

Speaking with regards to Europe in a statement that is equally applicable to the U.S., Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO's regional director for Europe said: "The diseases that they might have there are all well-established diseases. Also we have very good prevention and control programs for these diseases. This applies both for tuberculosis, but also HIV/AIDS."

For decades, campaigns across the U.S. and around the world have sought to end the stigma around HIV and AIDS, a disease representing the most advanced stage of HIV infection.

According to a 2015 report from the United Nations, in 35 percent of countries with available data, more than 50 percent of people reported having "discriminatory attitudes" towards people living with HIV.

"HIV-related stigma blocks access to condoms, HIV testing and adherence to
antiretroviral therapy," which treats HIV infection, the report states. "It also can have a deep negative psychological impact on people living with HIV and key populations at risk of HIV infection."

Hastings' defense of the separation of HIV-positive parents from their children at the border comes as the Trump administration works to reach its goal of ending the "HIV epidemic" in the United States within 10 years.

The government's ongoing initiative seeks to reduce the number of new HIV infections in the U.S. by 75 percent within five years and then by at least 90 percent within a decade, for an overall estimated reduction of 250,000 potential HIV infections.

In his fiscal year 2020 Health and Human Services budget Trump proposed $291 million to be put towards the effort.

Newsweek has contacted the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which oversees the Border Patrol, for comment for this article.

Brian Hastings, who serves as chief of law enforcement at the Border Patrol,
Brian S. Hastings, chief of the Law Enforcement Operations Directorate of the U.S. Border Patrol in U.S. Customs and Border Protection of the Homeland Security Department speaks during a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on June 26, 2019 in Washington, D.C. During the hearing, Hastings said it is U.S. policy to separate migrant parents with HIV from their children. Tasos Katopodis/Getty